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Nerve’s Modern Soul Revivalists Scorecard

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Nerve’s Modern Soul Revivalists Scorecard

Because charting soulfulness is a highly scientific process.

Seal recently released a new album of classic soul covers, cleverly titled Soul II. While his choice of material is solid, he’s not exactly the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of soul music. But it got us to thinking: with all this “modern soul” floating around, how do you quantify soulfulness? Obviously, the way you quantify anything so as to arrive at an inarguable, objective result: hard science and corn liquor.

We're looking at the three Most Important Factors in any artists soulfulness: their tragic, against-the-odds upbringing, the degree of yearning and existential angst conveyed by their vocals, and their overall projected level of street-level realness, or "grit." Those scores are then combined into the Total Soulfulness score, which is measured from one to ten scale: one being Rick Astley, the absolute least soulful you can be while still releasing a song called “Never Gonna Give You Up;” and ten being Aretha Franklin — any more soul would cause you to explode and possibly rend the universe asunder. 

1. Seal

Though somewhat more successful in Britain than the U.S., Seal is still mostly known as the “Kiss From a Rose” guy Stateside, and his two albums of soul covers haven’t done much to dispel that notion. It’s not that he can’t sing well, or that the albums constitute “bad music,” but he’s acting more as a vessel than an interpreter — aside from adding some modern production touches, Soul and Soul II do very little to update or innovate on the songs that he’s chosen. 

Hardscrabble Background: 6
Ache in Vocals: 4
Perceived Grit: 5
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 5

Listen: “Lean on Me”

 

2. John Legend

John Legend has long been a go-to guy behind the scenes: he played piano on Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything” and popped up as the golden voice on a number of other people’s singles, including Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, and Kanye. His own music, though superficially soulful, is awfully refined and poppy, and his dancier side (unveiled with “Green Light”) is about as far from Muscle Shoals as Tokyo. However, Wake Up!, a collection of classic soul covers performed with The Roots, was widely hailed as a triumph, even if it's difficult to believe that baby face has ever seen any really "hard times."

Hardscrabble Background: 4
Ache in Vocals: 6
Perceived Grit: 4
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 4

Listen: “Hard Times”

 

3. Adele

Look, I love Adele. Everyone loves Adele. 21 is the masterpiece that everyone said it was, but is it soulful? Yes and no. Adele’s voice is clearly indebted to classic soul singers like Aretha, but her music owes more to singer-songwriters, projecting more Joni Mitchell vulnerability than Etta James brassiness. Even her more barnstorming tracks like “Set Fire to the Rain” and “Rolling in the Deep” aren’t particularly gritty — they’re a little too cleanly produced and rely heavily on synths and syrupy string arrangements.

Hardscrabble Background: 5
Ache in Vocals: 6
Perceived Grit: 4
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 5

Listen: “Set Fire to the Rain”

 

4. Robin Thicke

He’s got a good enough voice and he sure is cute and all that, but listen to a song like “Love After War” and try not to imagine an elevator. With his curious affinity for ‘60s bossa-nova-style cheese (“Love After War”) and Tom Jones-style braggadocio like “I’m An Animal,” Robin goes for broke — an admirably soulful quality in any artist — but his music consistently fails to evoke anything grittier than a dentist's office.

Hardscrabble Background: 2
Ache in Vocals: 3
Perceived Grit: 1 
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 2

Listen:  “Lost Without U”

 

5. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Members of the Dap-Kings played on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and they’ve swapped members with another NYC-based collective, funky instrumentalists the Budos Band. Additionally, erstwhile Nerve editor Jack Murnighan was present at Jones’ first New York show, and was pulled up onstage for what he calls “full-on impregnation-through-the-pants-style grinding.” All that, coupled with the fact that Jones worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island and as an armored car guard for Wells Fargo prior to “making it” should tell you all you need to know about the authenticity of Jones and Co.

Hardscrabble Background: 8
Ache in Vocals: 9
Perceived Grit: 9
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 9

Listen:  “Longer and Stronger”

 

6. Raphael Saadiq

Raphael Saadiq has been one of modern pop music’s most reliably soulful voices, but he’s never really gotten his due as a solo performer, which is a shame, because at his best, he sounds like some kind of unholy combination of Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince. Growing up, Saadiq lost four of his brothers and sisters to to everything from drug addiction to car accidents, making his funky, upbeat music that much more of a triumph. 

Hardscrabble Background: 8
Ache in Vocals: 7
Perceived Grit: 6
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 7

Listen:  “Heart Attack”

 

7. Erykah Badu

One of the most visible figures of the late ‘90s-early ‘00s “neo-soul” movement, Badu garnered as much attention for her music as for her striking looks, style, and outspoken nature. Soul music has a long history of social involvement, and Badu is steeped in the tradition: she stripped naked at the site of JFK's assassination for the video to "Window Seat" without getting any kind of permit from the city, earning herself a disorderly conduct charge.

Hardscrabble Background: 7
Ache in Vocals: 7
Perceived Grit: 8
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 7

Listen:  “Window Seat”

 

8. Jill Scott

Like Badu, Jill Scott is one of the brightest figures of the neo-soul movement, thanks largely to her collaborations with the Roots. She’s also a talented poet and actress — lately she’s been more visible in the dramatic realm than in music — but that shouldn’t take away that Scott has some serious pipes. A song like “Gimme” has more than its fair share of hip-hop influences (in its looped bass line, canned beat, and electronic sounds), but that note at 1:34? That’s pure soul.

Hardscrabble Background: 4
Ache in Vocals: 8
Perceived Grit: 7
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 6

Listen: “Gimme”

 

9. Mayer Hawthorne

Mayer Hawthorne is proof that being born a white man named Andrew Cohen isn’t the barrier to soulfulness many would think it is. With a high tenor that’s neither in-your-face nor overly grating (think Smokey Robinson, not Barry Gibb), Hawthorne’s records could fool even the most die-hard Motown fan into thinking they were listening to some vintage b-sides in a blindfolded listening test. Granted, the difference between Seal covering classic soul songs and Hawthorne writing songs that sound exactly like classic soul songs is arguable, but Hawthorne writes his own material and played nearly every instrument on his first record, and that's plenty damn soulful.

Hardscrabble Background: 5
Ache in Vocals: 8
Perceived Grit: 5
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 6

Listen:  “The Walk”

 

10. The Alabama Shakes

Have we (and everybody else) written enough about the Alabama Shakes? Yes. Has their throwback rock n’ soul serendipitously come along at a time when most people are sick of tarted-up synth pop and overly-precious synth indie? Yes. Is seeing them live the equivalent of a religious experience? Yes. Have you listened to them yet? Ye — no? What the hell is wrong with you? 

Hardscrabble Background: 6
Ache in Vocals: 9
Perceived Grit: 8
Total Aggregated Soulfulness: 8

Listen:  “You Ain’t Alone”